Therapist Client Relationships
Lessons of Life © Kosjenka Muk
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Therapist & Clients
As a person, family or country becomes less oriented on physical survival, the awareness of the importance of emotional health, relationships and spirituality becomes stronger. Ever more people are looking for somebody who could help them in this regard. In time, many people wish to change from the client’s to the helper’s role. However, not even in the framework of formal, university education, is enough attention dedicated to the relationship between the helper and the client, apart from some general guidelines, especially in alternative helping methods. Sometimes that the helper, even when he acts with the best purpose in mind, harms the client more than he helps him.
As a guideline for people who consider helping others, as well as for those who already work as therapists/coaches or plan to do so, I wish to draw your attention to the complexity and impact of the client-therapist relationship and the importance to approach it responsibly.
In the world of alternative helping methods, some people become therapists without training or after short training in a narrow area, which might be based on dogma and theories rather than on the openness of mind, experience and maturity. Knowledge without inspiration and good intentions won’t bring much good, but lack of education and knowledge will cause people to make huge mistakes.
Regardless of a therapist’s intentions, the success of her work will primarily depend on her maturity and responsibility. This means that the therapist has to heal himself and his life: manage disturbing emotions, build fulfilling relationships and create life which fulfils his emotional needs. If a therapist’s needs are not fulfilled or if they are still immature (“false” needs compensating for the healthy ones, e.g. the need for power can be felt instead of healthy need for love, which the person feels can’t be fulfilled) there is a big risk that he may attempt to satisfy them through his relationship with clients.
The risk is made bigger by the fact that often a therapist can fulfill such needs more easily in the relationship therapist-client than in other relationships. The basis of this relationship is that a therapist is in a position of authority, and a client trusts him sufficiently to accept him as authority. In such a relationship it is much easier to influence and manipulate the other person than in everyday relationships between people who perceive each other as equal in knowledge and abilities.
A Subconscious Dance
Some people choose to be therapists because it gives them authority, power and status. Such people feel a need to convince themselves that they are more capable than other people and that they have a right to influence them. This attitude may not be obvious to their clients.
Sometimes a therapist’s wish to make the world a better place result in attempts to change others without allowing them to advance at their own pace. This is often a result of an unconscious need to get rid of her own childish feelings. Just as in love relationships we often choose partners who are in some ways similar to our parents, to fulfill the unconscious wish to change or save our parents, in the therapist’s role we can project this savior’s attitude to the rest of humanity. Subconsciously, we might hope to make a difference, deserve love or approval, make things easier for ourselves just as we hoped in our early family. If other people do not advance at the speed and in the direction that we wish, this can provoke childish anger and criticism.
Examples of similar behaviors are animal rights or environmental issues activists, who sometimes try to change other people by violent methods – seeing people as evil, instead of people conditioned by their education and insufficiently informed. Such people often identify themselves with what they are trying to protect, while they project anger toward those who they see as “culprits”. This anger has its origin in their relationship with their parents or other authorities. Even if the motivation for their actions is positive, if they act on their childish feelings they are neither able to see the others’ perspective, or to understand that their violent behavior will naturally trigger a defense reaction instead of agreement.
Some therapists believe that they have a right to exercise power over other people. Such people usually create rather rigid, hierarchical organizations around them with elements of personality cults, and they take a dominant attitude towards their clients, requesting things from them and prohibiting things to them, which doesn’t help their clients improve their lives, but helps maintain a power structure. Such requests can be explained by different moralistic ideas, but it is important that they are not logically and naturally connected to solving client’s problems. For example, requests to follow ritual procedures and formalities, not to explore different approaches and not to question the therapist’s dogmas.
Modalities of exercising such influence can be different: from subtle group pressure and non-verbal disapproval to direct punishment or intimidation. The common result is that the client is slowly lead into a unequal position and feelings of impotence, dependence, fear, guilt or inferiority are created within him, instead of him feeling worthy and able to steer his life and create happiness on his own.
To achieve this, a client must have complementary emotional problems: lack of self-confidence and self-trust, a feeling that it’s natural not to be treated as equal and respected, and that his opinion and inner guidance is not taken into consideration. Since some people grew up in such an atmosphere, it is not difficult to induce them to accept it once again. Actually, what many people are looking for in a therapist or coach is authority and decision-making: a substitute for parents. This is why some clients show less trust to therapists who treat them as equals and as capable people, than those who want to dominate.
Most people enjoy being right. A coach or therapist is no exception. However, just like anybody else, a therapist is limited by her experience and her beliefs. A key mistake of many approaches is the assumption that the therapist knows the answers, while the client knows little or nothing about his problem. Answers are more frequently sought in the rational knowledge or emotional (intuitive) impressions of the therapist, than in the client’s knowledge and his resources and subconscious.
Not only it is impossible to analyze thoroughly all, or even most, known ideas and therapeutic approaches, but due to life obligations, often we have little time to immerse ourselves deeply even into a relatively narrow scope of interests. Everybody enjoys certain segments of knowledge, while those that are emotionally less attractive usually appear less important. Consequently, every therapist will look for the answers in his area of expertise, and may not want, or not be able to, think of an entire spectrum of different possibilities.
This is almost unavoidable, but it can become dangerous with suggestive approaches, or in case of therapists who prefer to exert their influence and authority over others. Sometimes a therapist who is expert in a particular issue, or who is excited due to some recent findings or ideas, leads the client into believing that he has that very problem. “If your only tool is a hammer, all problems look like nails.”
A client who comes for help, often due to grave problems, may want to believe that somebody can give her solutions. The client can long for somebody to take over a part of the burden of decision making, or to offer her new, interesting belief structures which give hope for a “instant”, effortless solution. The client might long for somebody to whom she can surrender her life and whom she can idealize, just like the parents. The most difficult life problems naturally provoke childish feelings, so a person who is seen as an authority at that moment can easily become a parent substitute to the client.
This is when a client can go through a similar process as small children who wish to trust their parents to feel safe: he can be positively surprised and idealize everything that the therapist guesses correctly or does well, and based on this he creates trust that the therapist always knows what he does. If the therapist at this point says something wrong, abstract or difficult to prove, what frequently happens is that the client starts searching for justifications for such ideas, something like: “Well, maybe it could be that? I never thought about it before!” If there is some truth in the therapist’s assumptions, even if this is not the full truth or an important part of it, the client’s attention is directed towards that and he can feel that the therapist recognizes his problems better than himself.
For example, if the therapist says that the problem lies in the client’s not forgiving a certain person – and who of us does not bear any grudge against important people? – the client can be impressed by the insight that some anger is still within him, but also overlook that this might not be the core problem.
Sexuality and Therapy
If something attracts us emotionally, the mind can think of numerous reasons, regardless how far-fetched, to convince us that we are acting correctly. This is also no exception in various aspects of the therapist-client relationship, and in some cases it can become dangerous.
One such case is sexual intimacy between a therapist and a client. Male therapists can feel sexual attraction towards their female clients, while female clients, more often than men, can feel emotional attraction for the therapist … as a substitute for a father or some other important figure. This is when various justifications may be created.
A common justification is that there is nothing negative in sexuality, that one should not be ashamed of it and sometimes even that sexual acts have therapeutic properties. I know a male massage therapist who believes that a sexual intercourse helps to “release energy” and that there is nothing wrong with sexual intercourse during a massage, if a client wishes for it.
Apart from neglecting the emotional aspects of sexuality, this shows an ignorance of deeper, more sensitive aspects of a relationship between a therapist and a client, especially of the transference mechanism and childish feelings in general.
A key issue which defines a good therapist is understanding and respect for the client’s vulnerable position, more vulnerable than in most other relationships. A client is not only emotionally open within therapy, but this openness can often provoke otherwise suppressed feelings, needs and longings that can be easily projected to the therapist as a source of support and authority (parents’ features).
Client or Child?
In some methods (e.g. traditional psychoanalysis), a therapist is encouraged to play a parent substitute to the client. Such methods presume that this will help clients become aware of and release unresolved feelings towards their parents. What makes such approaches questionable that, as a rule, it’s not enough to become aware of and express feelings. An external relationship is not enough to manage such feelings, same as any external action.
Most infatuations are searches for substitute parents. If a relationship or external experiences could manage childish feelings, many people would be able to manage them relatively easily on their own. However, these relationships are only a substitute, they are not what the “inner child” is really looking for, and our subconscious knows that. Besides, focused and deep work on recovering split personality parts and resolving deep emotional beliefs is often missing in such an approach.
Therapists have all human issues. Emotions that a client expresses as well as his behavior can trigger the therapist’s conditioned reactions, i.e. unresolved emotions. Just as the client can subconsciously see his parent or another important figure in the therapist, the same association and recollection process is spontaneously and unavoidably taking place in the therapist as well. If she doesn’t observe herself and her feelings carefully, maybe she won’t notice conditioned prejudices or attractions awakening within her.
A therapist may unconsciously see a client not only as a person from his past, but as a child, or he can see his own unresolved problems in the client’s. It is a great temptation for the therapist not to impose himself as an authority in the client’s life, or to believe that he knows better than the client what the problem is and how to solve it. Such therapists may feel offended or belittle their clients if their advice is not accepted. Some clients welcome advice and instructions – someone who will take responsibility for their lives and tell them what to do – but then, instead of listening to their own inner truth, they start listening to a person who actually knows little about them and their lives.
Intuition or Ego-trip?
Many therapists like to think that they know much more than they do. Especially in the area of intuitive diagnostics as well as predictions (an area most prone to abuse), rare helper will consider the possibility of his mistake, or even make an effort to carefully choose his words. I remember several encounters when I was given, often unsolicited, diagnoses of my physical health, and each was completely different. None of them corresponded to my own feelings and experience.
The majority of those “diagnoses” were made quickly, expressed by strong words, without paying real attention. As a rule, these guesses were made on the basis of very uncertain physical indicators such as pulse or aching body parts during a massage. Sometimes they were based on a single glance. I felt that those people were trying to achieve a sense of power, trying to make an impression that they know things about others that others either don’t know, or don’t want to be known.
Even if such predictions are not reliable, some clients trust them most. It seems that, the fewer the proofs that a person can submit, the more the client feels free to believe that the other possesses some special power. We may all need a little bit of magic in our lives, but not if it harms us.
I’ve met many people who have been told by some negligent astrologists or fortune-tellers things like: “You can’t be helped” or “You’ll never find a partner“, leaving people in the state of fear, shock and without hope. Having spoken with some people about this, I realized that one thing was common in almost all the cases: the client received quite a good intuitive analysis of her past and present, which invoked trust. However, the predictions turned out to be of poor quality or completely wrong.
Apart from the future not being determined, or at least not definitely, each person who makes such forecasts gives to his impressions the stamp of his own personality and experience. Since they very often neglect the importance of working with their own emotions, their predictions will be colored with their own view of the world and their unresolved emotions. If you are looking for a person who could tell you something about your future, chose the one who seems happy, balanced and who has a positive attitude to life.
Resistance and Responsibility
Many health professionals pay little attention to resolving emotions, choosing rather to ignore, control or manipulate them. Often a client is told to “simply forgive” or in a similar way to “get rid of” his emotions very fast, maybe by their symbolical burning, sending to the universe or to spiritual beings. Since the message and lesson from these emotions is not received, the important relationships are left unresolved and the split personality parts are not found and integrated, this cannot yield long lasting results. The client often attempts to believe that he has solved his problem, trying to suppress and neglect these parts of himself even more. If at the end he still admits that he cannot manage, a therapist often calls this “resistance“.
A “resistant client” is a common therapist’s excuse to avoid being questioned on their competence. Therapists who tend to moralize or belittle certain emotions can provoke in the client a feeling of not being understood and accepted, or maybe an unconscious discomfort and confusion as he feels that something is lacking. In such situations therapists are often too fast in labeling such feelings as resistance.
Real resistance tends to be unconscious and subtle. It is often an attempt to protect oneself from pain and mitigate the speed and intensity of a change, if the change could threaten the emotional balance or important relationships (if the client feels that her family or friends could react negatively to her changing). Resistance is often shown through feelings or behavior modes that hide some other feelings that are difficult to accept (e.g. anger instead of guilt or shame, rationalization, blaming and similar). The therapist can have a subtle impression that the client does not express everything he feels. Often the clients nonverbal communication is incongruent. In such situations it’s important that the therapist can be clear within her own mind and able to separate her own negative emotions from what she feels is going on within the client.
I often hear of alternative therapists who are so unaware and unprepared to take responsibility that they, not only during the therapy but also during any other everyday activity, attribute their unpleasant feelings to some “negative energy” that they took from clients during sessions. Moreover, they might teach such an approach to students. The therapist presents herself as an especially advanced person, and she shows her “taking over” of client’s problems as a token of her compassion.
Such stories about a client’s “negative energy” sticking onto the therapist are a bogey for students. Therapists love to make self-display by using such stories to show their strength and righteousness, and partly also to play a victim role. Then they make theatre of energetic cleaning of themselves and the room, with stories about taking on their clients’ symptoms and emotions, about clients as “energy vampires” and so on.
Such stories are blown out of proportion. Therapists – through such stories – deny their power and free will to avoid taking responsibility for their feelings. According to my experience, the only thing that the therapist can “gather” from the client is emerging of the feelings that he already has inside. The less healthy the therapist, the more he suppresses and denies his own split-off parts, the more likely that a client’s negative emotions will trigger his own. The more balanced, integrated and healthy a therapist, the less it is possible for him to feel concerned by anything coming from a client.
© Kosjenka Muk, 2009-2017